Googling For Free

There’s a hacker conference going on this weekend in San Diego, and, from it, an interesting perspective on the real danger of the web:

The danger lies not in government monitoring, that’s been thoroughly recognized and railed against, Beetle says. It’s what we’re willing to let people do to our stuff so we can get it for free. Google’s autoscrubbing our searches for words to sell us stuff in the future is more dangerous to our privacy and future than pointless government monitoring, he says.

“We are letting strangers look at our bits in exchange for more free bits,” Beetle says. “What you are giving up now is tantamount to what you will give up in the future.”

Now, you might not be interested in advice from a hacker named “Beetle,” but it’s a valid point. Although it’s difficult to judge which is worse, government monitoring or the monetization of what we do on the web, the subtlety of the latter is what perhaps makes it more dangerous.

The web, by its very nature, is a place of surveillance. There are no secrets in cyberspace. The line between public and private is, necessarily, made obscure.

There is a monetary value to this openness, but it doesn’t end up in our pockets. It’s essentially free labor. Take the example of Google — they use our “work,” that is, the searches that make up the zeitgeist of the web, and sell it, in the form of ads. There’s also an element of marketing — what price can Google put on the word “google” becoming a verb? That’s a marketer’s dream!

The other interesting aspect of Beetle’s comments is a hacker calling the government’s use of surveillance “pointless.” I wonder if he’s suggesting the needle in a haystack effect — I always thought even if the government could tap everything that happened on the web, the sheer volume of data would be a real hurdle to zeroing in on anything worthwhile. Sure, there are data mining tools, but I have no idea how well they work.

Someone like Beetle would probably know.

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